Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I’ve always existed in a kind of linguistic exile’

A decade ago, the Pulitzer-winning author threw herself into mastering Italian. She talks about her love for Rome, translating Italy’s ‘finest living writer’ and rewriting her own work in English

Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel is the triumphant culmination of her 20-year love affair with Italian, an obsession that led her to move to Rome with her family almost 10 years ago. She renounced all reading in English and began to write only Italian. Published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo – “Where I find myself” or “Where am I?” – it is her first novel written in Italian. Now she has translated it into English under the title Whereabouts.

The story follows an unnamed woman around an unnamed city over the course of a year, each chapter an espresso shot of regret and loneliness. In the second chapter, “On the Street”, the narrator bumps into a man, the husband of a friend, whom she “might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with”: they go into a lingerie shop because she needs to buy a pair of tights, leading the reader to think we have begun a particular kind of story. But many of these streets lead nowhere. The chapters relate different relationships or connections: a visit to her mother; a daily chat with a barista; a fleeting encounter. The novel asks: “How does a city become a relationship in and of itself for the female protagonist?” she says now. This is a book about belonging and not belonging, place and displacement – questions of identity that Lahiri has explored throughout her fiction, whether set in New England, Calcutta or now (we guess) Rome. Following a year of enforced isolation for so many, not least in Italy, this “portrait of a woman in a sort of urban solitude”, as she describes the novel, has assumed an unexpectedly timely resonance.

Today Lahiri is at home in New Jersey: “Mi trovo Princeton,” she says. She returned to teach at the university in 2015, while maintaining a long-distance relationship with Rome. “I had two sets of keys. I had this other life, in this other place,” she explains, until coronavirus struck last year; her son was still in school in Rome at the time. On the shelves behind her, the only visible title is a book facing outwards with “ITALIAN” in large print. Her previous book, In Other Words, was her first written in Italian (translated by Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator) – “a sort of linguistic autobiography”, it is a passionate account of her “pilgrimage” to Rome and quest to conquer the language. At the end she confesses to a slight embarrassment at having written such a personal book “of love, of suffering”, and I suspect she feels similarly about giving interviews (which, along with reviews, she never reads). She is as thoughtful and composed as you’d expect from reading her fiction, with the same quiet humour it might be easy to miss.

“I’m the least experimental writer,” Lahiri told New York Times magazine in 2008 when her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, went straight to No 1 on the US bestseller lists, prompting Time magazine to declare a changing of the guard in US fiction. “The idea of trying things just for the sake of pushing the envelope, that’s never really interested me.” And it is true that her elegantly melancholy short stories – her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer in 2000 when she was 33 – belong to the realist tradition. Eschewing the showy irony of many of her American peers, or the lush prose and epic sweep typical of Anglo-Indian fiction at the time, she depicted the everyday lives of (often middle-class) Asian-American immigrants with the same compassionate scrutiny and moral complexity that distinguishes the work of her literary heroes William Trevor and Alice Munro.

When in Rome … ‘There is this life happening right on your doorstep’
When in Rome … ‘There is this life happening right on your doorstep’ Photograph: Paula Solloway/Alamy

Her first novel, The Namesake, which follows the fortunes of “Gogol”, the son of Bengali immigrants, as he makes his way in New York, was made into a film by acclaimed director Mira Nair; and her second The Lowland, a family saga stretching from 1950s Calcutta to New England decades later, was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2013. Although Whereabouts is a novel, it could be described almost as a collection of connected short stories, and so, in form at least, Lahiri is very much on home ground. She may be a traditionalist, but surely there is no bigger experiment for a writer than adopting an entirely new language? Like a 21st-century Henry James heroine, she shunned the US (the Brooklyn brownstone literary set, of which she was one of the most feted) for the old world charms of Rome, in what she describes as nothing less than an act of “literary survival”. “It is really hard to explain the forces in life that drive you to people, to places, to languages,” she says. “For me, to a language and then to a place and then to a new life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being. Those are very big things.”

She has always felt she existed in “a kind of linguistic exile” long before she left for Rome. She was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the family moved to the US when she was two. Growing up in Rhode Island (her father, like many of her characters, worked at the university), with frequent trips to Calcutta, she felt her story to be “much more complicated” than those of her school friends: “There was always ‘the other place’ and ‘the other language’ and ‘the other world’.” Bengali, which she spoke until she was four, is both her mother tongue and “a foreign language”, because she can’t read or write it: it is her parents’ language, “the language of their world”. Lahiri and her sister were educated in English, which she came to regard as a bullying “stepmother”. “Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?” she asks in In Other Words. “The most obvious answer is the English language.”

And yet she loved it, especially for the world of books it opened up. “I love it still,” she says now. “But at the same time, emotionally it represented this sort of impossible challenge. My relationship with English was always very much part of the desire as a child to be fully part of that world.” Paradoxically, the fact there was “not even a question of really belonging” in Italy finally freed her from being caught between two languages, “that is to say, having to choose between two ways of being, two ways of thinking”, she explains. “In poche parole, in few words, it has given me a true sense of belonging, fully recognising that it is ‘a sense’.”

Written in bursts each time she returned to Rome, Whereabouts grew out of her “day-to-day inhabiting of that city, mostly walking through it”. It is fitting that both the novel’s inspiration and the English title suggested themselves to her in transit: the idea was “born” on a train in Italy when the author became intrigued by a middle-aged woman she saw sitting alone, “and one looks in the window and maybe one sees oneself”. The title came to her suddenly, after months of deliberation, on a flight to Rome – “whereabouts” is “an incredibly English word: it doesn’t even have Latin roots”. And it is surely no coincidence that each of the enigmatically titled chapters – “At the Trattoria”, “In Spring”, “On the Couch”, “By the Sea” – begins with a preposition (she studied “a stupendous sentence” by Alberto Moravia in order to master Italian prepositions “once and for all”). This is a novel “of oscillation and unsettledness and shadows”, she says. “I was thinking about that idea of what it means to pass through life, to always be moving.” And yet, unlike Lahiri, who describes herself as “a nomad”, her narrator has never left the city in which she was born. She is “always on the move in her world, and yet sort of stuck in her world, nervous about what’s on the other side of the border,” she explains. “The border – what does that mean today?”

Like her characters, who often “migrate, who physically cross borders, who find themselves at checkpoints”, so much of Lahiri’s own experience has been “bound up with things like green cards and naturalisation and passports and certificates”. In Whereabouts she wanted to imagine what it might be like for someone who has never had to consider these things, and yet who still feels restless, to show that this conflict between feelings of being “rooted and rootless” applies to everybody.

The narrator is a contradiction in other ways, too: a professor in her late 40s, she is alone, yet with many friends and lovers; sometimes she is lonely, sometimes she is content; she envies others their intimacy and is envied for her freedom. “She’s at this crossroads. She is a woman who recognises she probably won’t become a mother; she may have other relationships but that is not going to be part of her life. How is she going to come to terms with that?” she asks. So much of writing comes out of imagining alternative lives, different paths, she believes. “So what if I didn’t have this life? What if I hadn’t met the person I did, the day I did and this happened and that happened and a child happened and then another child?” Although she is keen to stress that she is not her narrator, and her Italian adventure was very much “a family experience”, the act of travelling makes “you feel solitude more keenly”, she says. “It touches deeper parts of you. It makes you question who you are.”

The novel’s underlying sense of urgency or agitation comes from the fact that it was written in the knowledge that they would one day be leaving. “I always had the return ticket,” she recalls sadly. “Sinking into that new place, there was always something that was going to call me back to this place.”

The past year has been “an incredibly intense time”, as she has watched the pandemic unfold in two homes – Italy and the US. But it has also been one of the most productive: she has just finished a collection, Roman Stories, again written in Italian, which include some inspired by the Bengali immigrants she met in Rome; she is putting together a book of essays on translation (she recently translated the novels of her friend Domenico Starnone, Italy’s “finest living writer”); and perhaps most remarkably, her first book of poetry – in Italian – will be published in June. She has never written a poem in English before and “maybe never will”, she says. Just as she would never have written Whereabouts in English, she thinks writing in Italian made poetry possible. “When I first started writing in English I felt like an interloper. When I first started writing in Italian I felt like an interloper. When I was writing the poems I felt like an interloper. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.”

Lahiri hopes to return to Rome this summer, as her daughter is due to start high school there in September. Each time they visit she can’t wait to get out into the piazza, “to have that first coffee and see all those people, who are so happy that we are back”, she says with passion. “There’s this life that is happening right on your doorstep that is always changing and always kind of the same. I miss that.” She keeps in touch with friends she made among the many immigrants from Bangladesh living in Rome. “It’s the one place in the world where I speak English, Italian and Bengali on a daily basis.” This “little triangle” of language is part of the magic of the city for her, she says, “and it is waiting for me in the piazza.”

  • Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Lisa Allardice

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